How to deal with asbestos exposure in your workplace: advice for industrial workers

At one point, more than 75 different industries exposed workers to asbestos. Even though these industries have been made safer by regulations from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, many workers still come in contact with asbestos products that remain at their jobsites.

Although most industrial employees face some form of asbestos exposure risks during their career, employees most at risk for asbestos exposure include:

  • Construction workers.
  • HVAC mechanics.
  • Electricians.
  • Chemical plant workers.

Do you work in one of these industrial occupations where asbestos exposure is still a risk? The following tips can help reduce the risk of you or your coworkers being exposed to asbestos and becoming at risk for an asbestos-causing cancer. 

Know which materials pose an asbestos threat – and know how to handle them. More than 3,000 industrial products were once made with asbestos. Many of these are still present in jobsites. Tiles, pipes, cement and insulation are some of the most common, yet nearly any material installed before the 1980s can contain asbestos.

Asbestos may be visible in some older products that are in poor condition, but the fibers are rarely visible to the naked eye. Building owners are now required to put warning labels on products that they know contain asbestos, yet older products may still be unlabeled. Ask your manager or building owner for a full list of asbestos-containing products on the premises.

As long as these products remain intact, they do not pose a health threat. However, the rough nature of most industrial activities can easily damage the product and release asbestos into the air. Do not chip, scrape, saw or drill any products that may contain asbestos without following appropriate procedures. If you find a product that you think might contain asbestos, leave it alone and report it to a supervisor.

Refuse any assignments that you are not licensed for. Only workers with asbestos licensure can perform asbestos work. Employers are responsible for providing this training. If your supervisor assigns you to a project that requires asbestos certifications that you do not have, do not perform the project until they provide you with the necessary training.

Wear protective gear when working with asbestos – and leave it at the worksite. Your employer is also required to provide you with protective gear anytime you enter an area where asbestos work is being performed. Do not begin any asbestos work without a full safety suit (including coveralls, gloves, shoes and a respirator). Once your work is done for the day, change out of your protective gear and leave the gear at the worksite overnight. Shower to remove any remaining asbestos fibers before going home.

Properly dispose of asbestos waste. Waste should be placed into a 60”-by-60” waste bag and brought to a landfill that accepts asbestos waste. If the waste does not fit into one bag, alert your supervisor so that an accredited asbestos professional can be contacted to come remove the material. After debris has been addressed, the area must be thoroughly cleaned with a vacuum that is equipped with a HEPA filter. Do NOT use dry mops, brooms, dust cloths or standard vacuums to clean up asbestos waste remnants.

When in doubt, refer to OSHA standards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration developed three standards to protect workers who may be exposed to asbestos. Construction workers are covered by 29 CFR 1926.1101. Shipyard workers are covered by 29 CFR 1915.1001. Workers in any other industry are covered by 29 CFR 1910.1001. If you have any questions about employee protections your industry is covered by, refer to the OSHA standards for your trade.

Know when to speak up. If management is not appropriately handling asbestos in the workplace, workers can file a complaint online at OSHA’s website or by calling (800) 321-OSHA (6742). The hotline should also be called for any asbestos-related emergency.

Alert your doctor. Even though your employer is required to provide you with health screenings, you should still tell your health care provider that you work in an occupation where asbestos exposure is a threat. Your doctor can help you schedule routine asbestos-related disease screenings to detect any illnesses that might arise even after you leave your current place of employment. Most of these illnesses do not arise for several decades after asbestos exposure occurs. Letting your doctor know about this exposure now can help your medical team keep their eye on your health for problems that might develop in the future.

This Intelex Guest Blog is part one of a three-part series. Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.

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